The Tampa Bay Times reports that one third of a Hillsborough school board member’s 2016 election campaign is financed by the charter sector. Contributions to local school board candidates from charter advocacy groups is becoming a national strategy. Is this democracy in action or something more sinister? The issue is complicated by questions about the meaning of public education.
Since charter schools are exempt from most rules and regulations governing public schools, and run by private agencies, should they even be represented on elected district school boards? This is not a theoretical question. Nor is there an easy answer. Charter schools are called public schools, but they have their own individual policy boards that are responsible for their operation. By legislative design, district school boards have only nominal oversight of charter schools.
Basically, charters must report financial emergency conditions, but the lack of daily regulation of charters is well documented by any number of sources. See for example: Florida Charter Schools Unsupervised. Not only are charters shielded from close scrutiny, too often charter board members are also either uninformed about or personally involved in their management companies’ business practices.
Are privately owned and managed charters serving the public interest? The Center for Public Education characterizes public school as one which provides the following:
- tuition free education for all students
- promise of equal educational opportunities…
- commitment to high standards and high expectations for all students
- system of governance that ensures public accountability
- benefit to society by teaching democratic principles and common values
Charters do not meet all of these criteria. Jeb Bush has a ‘new‘ definition of public schools:
- no more assigned schools
- reward success and weed out failing schools
- money follows the student
Local communities are in a conundrum. School boards are intended to represent all public schools but the system is contradictory. Much of the charter sector replaces public interest with private business interests. When these business interests influence elections through campaign contributions and lobbying, whose interest is being served? What can local school boards really do to rectify the problems? None of this is new; it is a reflection of the political process long practiced in state and national elections. If the public interest is to be served, the public must be engaged.